A record-setting number of visitors -- more than 1,200 children, parents, teachers, and supporters -- turned out last weekend for the Cuyamaca Outdoor School Open House.
The annual event took on extra significance this year as the San Diego County Office of Education's (SDCOE) 6th Grade Camp, housed at Cuyamaca Outdoor School in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, is celebrating its 70th anniversary.
"This is the only publicly operated outdoor school program in San Diego County, and we hope it endures for another 70 years, so your kids and their kids can attend," Principal Greg Schuett told a group of children gathered in the camp's Fox Lodge to celebrate with birthday cake.
Outdoor Education Senior Director Tina Chin added: "We hope the highlight of your 6th grade year will be 6th Grade Camp."
Every September, on the weekend before the camp school year gets underway, SDCOE's Outdoor Education team invites future campers and their parents to peek at what to expect during 6th Grade Camp. Program specialists and head teachers lead tours of the cabins and dining hall, and give them a taste of activities like camp songs and rock climbing.
Outdoor Education outreach programs, including the Green Machine and Splash Science Mobile Lab, were at camp open house, too, giving young visitors hands-on science and nature demonstrations. Program Specialist Sharyl Massey drew nonstop crowds to the camp's cedar grove for visits with birds of prey, including a barn owl and a screech owl.
Among Saturday's visitors was a group of about 50 parents and children from San Marcos Elementary, which is new this year to the camp program. Camp also accommodates some 5th-grade classes. The students were wide-eyed and eager as they explored the cabins. They scrambled to try rock-climbing, and the camaraderie of camp was instant as they cheered on kids they had never met.
San Diego Language Academy parent Polina Bryson marveled as her daughter, Victoria, braved the rock-climbing activity. "It's scarier going down," Bryson said. "You have to do the opposite of what your brain is telling you, and you have to trust someone."
Bryson said the family isn't outdoorsy, so she's happy that her daughter will get to experience camp. "She won't get camping out of us."
SDCOE's 6th Grade Camp is the oldest outdoor school program in California and one of the oldest in the nation. More than 1 million students have participated since 1946. Credentialed teachers, including San Diego County Teacher of the Year Finalist Doug Connor, and expert program specialists instruct more than 400 students a week at camp, with more than 11,000 students participating each year. Students come from around San Diego County, and as far as Orange County and Arizona. The program curriculum supports Next Generation Science Standards.
"This isn't a summer camp program; it's an accredited outdoor school," Schuett said. "We have a 45-member staff that includes award-winning educators."
It's also steeped in tradition, with three generations of San Diegans calling 6th Grade Camp a rite of passage. The 2016-17 camp school year started Monday, with three schools from Encinitas Union School District bunking down: Capri, Flora Vista, and Mission Estancia elementary schools.
Not every 6th-grader in San Diego County has the opportunity to attend 6th Grade Camp. The Outdoor Education Foundation, a nonprofit that supports 6th Grade Camp, continues to work to change that by sponsoring individual camperships and schools. For information on how you can help, visit the foundation website.
Would you like to get your school to 6th Grade Camp? Contact Principal Greg Schuett 760-765-4101 or the Outdoor Education office at 858-292-3695.